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Ex-MSU football staffer Curtis Blackwell sues university officials

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Curtis Blackwell

A former Michigan State University football staffer is suing former university president Lou Anna Simon, head football coach Mark Dantonio and other school officials, alleging his rights were violated when he was accused of covering up sexual assault allegations against athletes.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Curtis Blackwell says MSU officials "feeling the heat from the Larry Nassar cover-up, and eager to prove they were tough on cover-ups, ran roughshod" over his rights when he was "wrongly" accused of covering up for MSU athletes involved in an alleged sexual assault of a female co-ed in 2017.

"With no evidence, none, that plaintiff covered up for the athletes, the MSU Police Department, in stormtrooper fashion cuffed plaintiff; seized his personal and MSU cell phones and hauled him off to the MSU Police station," the suit says.

Blackwell, who was hired for the MSU position in 2013,  says in the lawsuit no charges were ever filed against him and "the county prosecutor acknowledged in court filings that plaintiff committed no crime."

MSU Police had sought a warrant for obstruction of an investigation against Blackwell, but the prosecutor did not authorize those charges.

A report by Jones Day, requested by MSU, was used to determine whether the football staff followed university policy in its handling of the incident. While Blackwell declined to be interviewed for that report, it concluded there was enough evidence to show Blackwell violated university policy.

Blackwell says MSU never gave him the opportunity to sit down and explain his side "as required by the employment agreement."

"Had they, Plaintiff would have explained that he did not provide cover for the student athletes or interfere with an investigation; rather, he was simply performing his job which required 'mentoring student athletes,'" the lawsuit alleges.

The case also names as defendants former MSU athletic director Mark Hollis and detectives Chad Davis and Sam Miller of the MSU Police Department.

In the suit, Blackwell is asking a judge to award him damages in excess of $75,000, an award of lost wages and the value of fringe benefits and a declaration "that the defendants Simon, Dantonio and Hollis retaliated against the plaintiff for exercising his Fifth Amendment Right not to speak to the MSU Police Department."

MSU officials said Tuesday afternoon that "the university has not been served on this lawsuit, so we do not have a comment at this point."

Blackwell's attorney, James K. Fett, said Blackwell's constitutional rights were violated when he was illegally arrested and again when he was terminated for invoking right to not speak to police.

"This allows for us to sue," Fett said. "We are seeking compensation but the most important thing here is to clear his name. ...There is a cloud over him because of the way it went down."

In 2017, MSU police officials said Blackwell interfered with their investigation and was led out of the football building in handcuffs.

On Feb. 8, 2017, a day before the university announced that three football players and a staff member had been suspended amidst a sexual assault investigation of a Jan. 16 incident that occurred on campus, Blackwell was interviewed at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building by MSU police detectives who determined Blackwell “took it upon himself to investigate this incident.”

The police report, obtained by The Detroit News through an open records request, detailed interviews with Blackwell following the incident that resulted in criminal sexual conduct charges and dismissal from the football team of Josh King, Donnie Corley and Demetric Vance.

The three players were sentenced to three years’ probation in the matter. They also were required to undergo sex offender treatment and therapy.

While the names of everyone but Blackwell were redacted from the report, it stated Blackwell told investigators he had spoken with two players later identified as suspects well before Michigan State’s Title IX office had been made aware of the incident. Blackwell also said he had exchanged text messages with the father of one of the players, adding he had been mentoring two of the players since high school and was close with their families.

The report stated Blackwell did not tell police or others at the university about his discussions with the players or their families until he was interviewed by police on Feb. 8, 2017.

Blackwell told detectives he was simply trying to understand the situation.

“I wasn’t doing an investigation or anything,” Blackwell told the detectives. “I was just trying to find out exactly what happened.”

In June 2017, Dantonio said he had "philosophical differences" with Blackwell for his reason to not renew the former recruiting director's contract.